Brenda was a close neighbor. It was Halloween night. Mom, Dad & us three kids; older sister, Karen, baby sister Wanda, and me; the extent of our family then, were gathered round the table eating dinner in the small company bungalow my parents rented from the logging outfit my dad worked for. The bungalow was one of several dozen like ones, all of which housed the families of our small community of company workers. Nestled in the wooded but logged off area at the mouth of the watershed that formed the extant of the company timber holdings, it was both workers accommodations and base of operations. Though well secluded, it was our daily world then, alive with the living.
Baby sister, Wanda, would have been probably pushing two. Cute as a button and equally as chubby with this little curl to the top of her head, she was seated in her high chair cheerily eating her dinner when in burst Brenda. Brenda wanted our family to be the first to see her in her Halloween costume.
And what a costume it was. She had chosen to dress as a hobo with the customary tattered shirt, overalls, and bundle stick; only in those days, the stereo-typical hobo was the Al Jolson ‘Mammy’-esque Negro of the early 1900s. And so to complete her attire she had taken a bottle cork which she had charred at the end of a fork over the cook stove and face painted herself with this blackened soot: Voila, a hobo, extraordinaire! And with her costume complete she had burst into our dinner gathering, loud, exuberant and emotional as ever.
The combination of hobo, extraordinaire, and natural exuberance proved too much for baby sister Wanda, who, having never seen the like, responded by jumping up in her chair as if she had been hit by an electric current and with such shrieks of utter terror; that it was all that mom could do to take her in her arms to rock and cuddle her to calm her down. Brenda meanwhile only succeeded in terrifying her more in her own efforts to reassure baby sister by trying to get her to recognize who she was by repeating, “It’s me, it’s me.” For the rest of us, it was truly one of those funny situations that you just crack- up over. I’ve never forgotten it.
I never, ever, saw Brenda mean, angry, or down. She had that uncanny ability to invite her infectious self into your world and make herself part of yours and you part of hers. She lived life in the moment and she was, well, what can I say: she was—Brenda.
Roughly about the same age as my older sister and me (we are a year-and-a-half apart) Brenda was mentally challenged or what we termed then as ‘retarded’. But it never seemed to matter; she was just one of us kids: I never ever remember there being a separation or distinction. She loved us and we loved her and we were all the better for it. She accepted you and let you know that she was emphatically there and she never hesitated to let you know that you were special in her life.
Another Brenda antic written indelibly in memory is her diving antics. Our community also had its own small lake just a stone’s throw from the front of both our adjoining yards. During the summer months Brenda lived in the water. She never tired of diving off what would have been maybe a 6—8’ diving board and she always wanted you to watch and participate in her dive. She’d called out, ‘So and so, watch this!’ and off she’d go. The only thing was that her dives were really belly flops. She never did seem to get the hang of actual diving. And instead of a graceful headlong entry into the water, she’d whack the surface of the water with the familiar ‘belly-whack’ sound, briefly disappearing under the water only to reappear splashing, sputtering, and laughing, as if each belly-flop pushed a new round of laughter from her and was something to delight in. She was exuberance personified.
I can’t remember exactly how long we lived in that community but I do know that mom and dad were good friends with her parents. Somewhere in the middle of my grade school years we moved to a bigger town but still kept in touch and our families would visit each other occasionally. I haven’t seen her or her family for well over 40 years; I don’t even know if she’s still alive now or not, but I’ve never forgotten Brenda. She’s never once diminished from my life. Unlike many others who have come and gone in my life, she was able to write herself indelibly into mine and remain
s part of me.
But Brenda’s story doesn’t end here because I think her, or someone just like her, is in a lot of people’s lives. And how is it a scary story besides the dreadful fright it gave to my baby sister? It’s really scary for the fact that in our modern desire for a perfect world there just may not be a place for Brenda & she, all alike, may well be relegated to just that: a story about somebody who once was, who once existed, swept from the pages of life. ‘Why’, say they, ‘let’s factor out these genetic mutations, prescreen her out; we desire babies just like our lives, designer lives, designer babies, that’s the story of our future. We’ll put a patent on them genes. We’ll make them ours or we’ll not make em.’
I find it strange that in so an imperfect world as ours, full of the imperfect people we know ourselves to be, that we demand perfection in others. It’s as if such sought after perfection might perhaps assuage our own imperfect consciences. Do we really want to cast such a first stone?
As for Brenda & her peers, do we really want to factor them out? Odds are, I don’t think anyone could ever design a life as beautiful, as perfect as Brenda
*The photo included above isn’t an actual photo of Brenda but it sure reminds me of her.